The Wardrobe Mistress – Patrick McGrath

I was first introduced to Patrick McGrath’s writing when I read his well-known novel Asylum. It was an incredibly well written and well plotted novel focusing on an extra marital affair and the theme of obsession. What also made the novel so interesting was the narrative voice, which I will not discuss here, but will urge you to read that novel instead.

But clearly, Patrick McGrath was an author to watch out for and I was eager to read more of his work. Port Mungo followed, which was an immersive read too, with many of the traits that made Asylum so good.

After a long hiatus, it was time for me to try my hand at another McGrath, and I chose his latest offering – The Wardrobe Mistress.

Wardrobe Mistress
Hutchinson Edition

When the novel opens, the famous theatre actor Charlie Grice is dead. The funeral is attended by many of his friends and well-wishers. And of course, also present is his wife, Joan Grice (the wardrobe mistress of the title), and his daughter Vera Grice, who is also set to become an established actress in her own right.

We are in London, in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War. It is also one of those bitterly cold winters, and a time when England is struggling to rebuild from the ruins of the war.

We are introduced to Julius Glass, Vera’s husband, who was having an argument with Charlie Grice when the latter fell and died. Just what the bone of contention was, we don’t know.

Joan, meanwhile, is shown to be a well-known costume designer in the theatre world. She is grappling to come to terms with her grief. It does not help that her daughter Vera is prone to bouts of hysteria, and at such times Joan misses having Charlie around, to tell her what to do. Also, it seems that Vera and Julius Glass are having problems in their marriage.

That is one story thread in the novel.

We also get an inkling of the other thread early on in the novel – Germany has been defeated, but the fascism hasn’t entirely died away, even in England.

The Blackshirts that got banged up during the war under Regulation 18b – sympathy for enemy powers – they were back out on the streets.

They marched through the East End three abreast, they held public meetings, they papered walls with swastikas, spewed hatred like they’d never been gone, like there hadn’t even been a war, which they’d lost.

At first, Joan is a difficult character to pin down. She seems probably cold and distant?

We’ve heard Joan Grice called a beautiful woman. A striking-looking woman, certainly, and a formidable one. Her hair was black and without a thread of silver. She wore it pulled back with some severity from her face, the better, it was said, to come at the world like a scythe. As tall as her late husband and a slim woman, her face was pale and sculpted, with the chin carried high, the whole seeming forged from some hard white stone; the effect could be dramatic. But oh dear – we hate to say it – her teeth were horrible!

But then, about halfway through the novel, she stumbles upon Charlie’s secret and her world turns upside down. It is then that our sympathies shift towards her.

But before that happens, Joan finds solace in gin – Uncle Alcohol as she calls it – and an understudy called Frank Stone. That’s the third thread in the novel.

Frank Stone piques Joan’s interest because of his convincing portrayal as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. It is a part that Charlie Grice excelled in before his death, and Frank Stone has now replaced him. Stone effectively portrays ‘Charlie’s portrayal of Malvolio’, and that is why he comes alive as Charlie Grice to Joan. They begin an affair.

Joan, in the meanwhile, is hearing Charlie’s voice, and is also haunted by ghosts in his bedroom cupboard. Is this a woman who is deeply grieving or a woman who is slowly losing her mind?

Besides the character study of Joan, there are two aspects which make The Wardrobe Mistress compelling.

The first is McGrath’s superb portrayal of the theatre world – the rehearsals, the pressure before a performance, the ambition of the actors to get noticed, and the backstabbing to get ahead.

For instance, Frank Stone is cast in a minor role in the same play where Vera Grice is playing the lead. But he is eyeing any opportunity that will help him bag the male lead opposite Vera.

Then there is Vera herself. She is blossoming into an exciting actress, following her father’s footsteps. She is all set to play the lead role – that of the Duchess – in the dark and tragic play The Duchess of Malfi. But she is stressed, afraid of not doing a great job.

And yet, as the rehearsals progress, her confidence blooms. In the days leading to the opening night, McGrath wonderfully conveys the intensity and the anticipation is.

First…

She felt she possessed a charge of human passion like a fermenting spirit in a corked bottle which, once released would inebriate the world.

And then…

She’d entered what she recognized as the impatient period which occurred in the days before the first dress rehearsal when the role has been learned and the character so thoroughly assimilated that any delay is fraught with the risk of loss of vital energy.

Now with the Duchess she was impatient to step out of the wings and into the light and find herself at home and in control and in every fibre of her being so alert it was a kind of ecstasy, yes, acting was ecstasy when the work had been done, all the blind alleys gone down, all the wild risks taken, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yes, she had it!

The other interesting aspect of the novel is the narrative voice that McGrath employs. It is a choral ‘we’ (or first person plural, if you will), like in the ancient Greek plays.

We saw her in the pub around this time. We thought we should take her out, cheer her up. There were a few of us she knew, old friends… We knew what she was thinking about, it was Gricey, of course, who all that time had had a secret, and herself practically the only one who didn’t know it because nobody wanted to be the one to tell her. Well, why would we?

It is a bit tricky at first, but ultimately McGrath pulls it off.

Tragedy is clearly the dominant theme in the novel – either in ancient or today’s modern times. We have Joan and her grief over Charlie’s death, we have Vera herself acting in a tragic play, and then we have the ‘theatrical chorus’ narrative voice commonly displayed in Greek tragedies.

The Wardrobe Mistress then is a gripping theatre novel with the characters of Joan and Vera Grice coming alive on every page.

But there is a quibble. For this reader, while the depiction of theatre life was fascinating, the fascism angle didn’t quite work.

Although still not up there with the rather excellent Asylum, The Wardrobe Mistress is nevertheless a strong read.